Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thor (Marvel/Paramount, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After Charles and I had uncharacteristically gone to movie theatres to see three first-run blockbusters — Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Green Lantern and now Thor — I can unhesitatingly say that Thor was by a wide margin the best of the three. It’s true that we weren’t seeing it in 3-D (we were catching it towards the end of its theatrical run and the 3-D showings had long since ceased — ironically had we seen Green Lantern at the AMC Mission Valley instead of the Regal Horton Plaza, we could have seen it in 3-D instead of “flat” and on a relatively small screen that’s not that much bigger than some people’s modern-day TV’s), but the movie gripped me in ways that the fourth Pirates movie and Green Lantern hadn’t.

And this despite a committee-written script — J. Michael Strazcynski and Mark Protosevich are credited with “story” and Ashley Miller & Zach Stentz and Don Payne with “screenplay,” aside from the three people (Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby) credited with coming up with the concept for the Marvel comic book on which the film was based — and a director, Kenneth Branagh, who at first may have seemed like an odd choice for a comic-book superhero movie. Then again, even though Branagh has done several films based on Shakespeare, his Shakespearean adaptations have shown some of the same over-the-top spirit as one wants in a comic-book movie: whereas almost 400 years’ worth of Hamlets starting with Richard Burbage, who premiered the role (we think) under Shakespeare’s direction, had been content to stab Claudius with a sword in the final scene, Branagh had hurled it like a javelin and impaled him with it. (I also can’t forget his version of Frankenstein, which claimed fidelity to Mary Shelley’s novel but also went over-the-top in the ending and offered less of the real spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein than the James Whale movies had, even though the Whale Frankensteins had been even less faithful to the letter.)

As things turned out, Branagh was a virtually ideal director for Thor; the story offered him room for his melodramatics in ways the classics hadn’t, and he managed to put together an impeccable cast and thread the thin needle between reality and fantasy in ways that had totally (I think) eluded Christopher Nolan in his two Batman films and that Sam Raimi, director of the first three Spider-Man movies, had only sporadically got right. Thor begins in Asgard, the home of the Norse gods, and the conceit behind it is that there are actually nine key planets in the universe that sustain life, and they are linked by a series of Einsteinian wormholes of which humans are barely aware, but the Norse deities (who aren’t really deities; in a gimmick that’s been used by everyone from H. Rider Haggard in King Solomon’s Mines to the writers of the “Who Mourns for Adonis?” episode of the original Star Trek, they were really beings with vast, but still naturally limited, powers who were mistaken for gods when more primitive peoples encountered them) have intuited them and used them as the basis for the legend of Yggdrasil, the world-ash tree that links the nine planets.

In the prologue, Odin, head of the Norse gods, beats back an invasion from the Frost Giants from the world of Jotunheim and takes the casket which holds the secret of their power. When the film proper opens, Odin is about to pass the reins of power to his favorite son Thor, only his other son Loki has a jealous hissy-fit and opens the gate to Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge that connects the various worlds, thus allowing a raiding party of Frost Giants to invade Asgard. Thor organizes some of the other Norse warrior gods to repel them, but Thor’s insistence on an aggressive pre-emptive strike against the Frost Giants to destroy them once and for all pisses off Odin, who banishes Thor and goes off into a state of self-willed suspended animation called “Odinsleep,” whereupon Loki takes over Asgard. Later it turns out that Loki isn’t Odin’s son at all, but a Frost Giant baby whom Odin took to Asgard and raised as his own. Odin’s wife Frigga (Rene Russo, making her first film in six years and her first comic-book movie ever) isn’t happy about this, but there’s nothing she can do about it.

The scene then shifts to New Mexico, where a scientific team headed by Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) and female lead Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is investigating meteorological disturbances that may be key to proving the existence of the wormholes Einstein predicted in theory. They run into the fallen Thor — literally; Jane crashes their all-terrain vehicle into him, not once but twice — and of course they have no idea who he is, especially once he starts telling them his name is Thor and starts babbling names like Mjölnir (Thor’s magic hammer, which no one else can wield) and Bifrost that it takes about half an hour of the film’s 115-minute running time before anyone (Dr. Selvig, actually) associates them with Norse mythology. (There’s a nice in-joke: a water tower in the small New Mexico town where the researchers are headquartered has a high-school sports logo that proclaims it “Home of the Vikings!”) Thor is determined to get to his hammer, which has also descended to earth and lodged itself in a stone in the center of a blasted-out crater (where it’s proved resistant to the efforts of a truck driver, played by Marvel head honcho Stan Lee, to dislodge it) — only the U.S. government has seized control of the site and the secret agency S.H.I.E.L.D. has set up a perimeter around it. In one of the film’s action highlights, Thor crashes through the S.H.I.E.L.D. defenses, gets to the hammer in the middle of a driving rainstorm — and [surprise!] can’t lift it. He can’t lift it because Odin is still comatose and without him, no one can set aside the curse on Thor that limits him to the strength of a particularly well-toned but still ordinary Earthling.

Meanwhile, back at Asgard Loki is running a plan to take full control of the kingdom by allowing the Frost Giants in, giving them the impression they’re going to be allowed to take over, then double-crossing them. Meanwhile, back in New Mexico (the film rather arbitrarily cuts back and forth between the two locations) S.H.I.E.L.D. has seized all Jane Foster’s equipment and records, citing national security, and also seized the iPod of her comic-relief assistant Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings from Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist — and as befit that previous role, in this one Darcy can’t shut up about the loss of the 30 songs she just downloaded!), and Thor is stranded there until Odin comes to long enough to shed one tear, thereby taking the curse off him and allowing him to lift his hammer and high-tail it back to Asgard, where he leads the familiar deities in a triumph (at least a temporary one, since one of the purposes of movies like this is to set up sequelae) even though he has to destroy the Rainbow Bridge to do it, thereby cutting himself off from Jane Foster, the earth girl he’d started to grow fond of (at least in part because she reminded him of Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the warrior goddess who was his main squeeze back in Asgard. (Then again, given how much Odin/Wotan — like his Greco-Roman counterpart, Zeus/Jupiter — screwed around in his periodic trips to Earth it’s not altogether unfitting that Thor should have, shall we say, a girl on every planet.)

Thor has its problems, including all too many spectacular CGI visuals that don’t seem to have a point other than, “See how cool we are? We can do this!” and some oddly jerky cuts from Earth to Asgard and back (and frankly the Thor as fish-out-of-water on Earth plot line was more interesting, at least to me, than the palace intrigue in Asgard), as well as minor annoyances like the Rainbow Bridge being flat instead of rainbow-shaped and some odd casting of the Norse gods as making Heimdall (Idris Elba), the gatekeeper of the Rainbow Bridge, Black (which actually worked!), and one of the other Norse gods Asian (which didn’t; one wondered, “What’s a guy from a kung fu movie doing in Asgard?”). But Branagh cast the film superbly, striking a balance between well-known actors (Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Natalie Portman as Jane) and unknown ones — and his two leads, Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, were just right for the roles.

Hemsworth bulked up for the role with a six-month exercise routine and a strict diet to match, but fortunately he didn’t go overboard into Schwarzeneggerian dimensions; he’s not as hot as the Thor of the comics but he’s still a genuinely attractive, masculine man who’s fully credible as both action hero and (ultimately frustrated) lover. Hiddleston is also excellent: sometimes reminiscent of an Anglo John Lone, he’s tall, dark and handsome enough, moving through Asgard with an enigmatic air — instead of either the trickster god of the original legends or the faithful, if underhanded, servant of Wotan he’s portrayed as in Wagner’s Ring (let’s face it, I had to mention it sometime!), he’s a tough-minded, close-to-the-vest politician, surprising both the other characters and us with his shifts in loyalties and keeping us unbalanced as to just what side he is on. There are some of the usual weird references to other movies — the skyline of Asgard looked so much like the Emerald City (albeit yellow instead of green) that I started singing “Optimistic Voices” under my breath (sotto voce so only Charles could hear) — but there’s also a sense of richness that bespeaks Branagh’s background in the classics: there’s quite a lot of King Lear in the machinations around the dying Odin’s throne, and in the relationship between Odin and Thor I also sensed a parallel with the two Presidents Bush: the more level-headed, moderate father who stopped the first Gulf War before it became a quagmire and the crazier, more hot-headed son who if given his druthers would have embroiled Asgard in a mutually destructive war with the Frost Giants.

Patrick Doyle’s musical score falls short in the inevitable comparison with Wagner (and it might have been stronger if he had borrowed some motives from the Ring, especially the “Heda! Heda! Hedo!” aria Thor sings in Rheingold, under the god’s German name, Donner), but it’s certainly far superior than the atrocious one Anne Dudley provided for the big-screen adaptation of Tristan and Isolde and it does its job well, bolstering the action and providing appropriate moods for the quieter scenes. Though the writing committee hardly got as much out of the Norse myths than either Wagner or Thea von Harbou (screenwriter for Fritz Lang’s two films based on the Nibelungenlied), overall Thor is a quite good movie that’s everything a superhero film should be: the action scenes (except for a rather confusing opener) are well staged and also relate to the plot instead of just being there as set pieces like numbers in a Busby Berkeley musical, and despite the plethora of writers the script is surprisingly well constructed and the story, given the fantastic premise, actually makes sense. Thor is proof that it’s possible, even within the rules of a modern-day blockbuster, to make a film that is both genuinely moving and viscerally exciting, and has depth far beyond what we expect from the action-hero genre without getting so deep (as the Nolan Batman films did) that we lose the sense of sheer joy that’s a major part of the appeal of comic-book movies.